For all that Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ostensibly focuses on witchcraft, Satanic rituals, demonic possession and other occult topics, at its heart it’s simply a story about women. From a teenaged girl who struggles to find her place in the world, to her classmate who seeks power using any means necessary, to her aunt who tries to reconcile her own desire for agency with the faith she loves, this show is positively bursting with female characters, who all have stories and agendas of their own. Even the series’ villain is female, a possessed version of one of the young half-witch Sabrina’s favorite teachers, Mary Wardwell. (She’s later revealed as Lilith, the banished first wife of Adam according to Jewish folklore, who now in this story calls herself Madam Satan in homage to the Dark Lord who took her in.)
Of course, the very idea of a villain in this context is intriguingly fraught, given that this is a show in which even the designated good guys participate in, or at the very least condone, things like cannibalism, blood sacrifice and selling one’s soul to Satan. Can we, as viewers, sympathize with any of these people – hero, villain or something else entirely – who literally worship the devil? Yes, because it turns out that Chilling Adventures isn’t about a bright line definition of ideas of good and evil. Instead, it’s about the people who exist in the margins, and how darkness and light can, a lot of the time, look a lot like one another.
On paper, Madam Satan is the true villain of Chilling Adventures, a dark being who has forcibly taken over the body of another woman. As she slinks about in increasingly dramatic outfits and stunning hairdos, she’s also murdering pizza guys, kidnapping school officials and manipulating local teens into doing her evil bidding. That’s all, admittedly, less than great. However, this is a show that positively revels in its own darkness, and many of Madam Satan’s transgressions aren’t necessarily any worse than those we see Zelda, Prudence, or even Sabrina herself commit. She’s stridently feminist, unapologetic about taking up space in the world, and a full-on combatant of the patriarchy at pretty much every level.
“Women should be in charge of everything,” she tells Sabrina at one point, and it certainly doesn’t seem like she’s kidding about that.
So is Madam Satan a monster or a role model? Much like the rest of the characters in Chilling Adventures, she is a bit of both. The duality of her nature is what makes her character so interesting, and it’s the reason it’s so easy to find yourself rooting for her even as she shapes Sabrina’s decisions toward her own ends. Yes, the disguised Mrs. Wardwell has ulterior motives, but she also serves as a genuine mentor to the younger girl, helping her tap into her own inner strength and confidence even as she steers her back toward the Path of the Night. It’s Madam Satan, not Zelda or Hilda, who consistently tells Sabrina she is more rather than less, and who encourages her to take control of her own power for her own benefit, rather than in service of someone or something else.
Plus, she’s gloriously fun to watch, thanks to Michelle Gomez’s deliciously campy performance and the fun ways in which the show plays with preexisting tropes surrounding the idea of an unattractive spinster who suddenly gets the chance to be attractive. In her newly possessed form, she gets the opportunity to do all the things that Mary Wardell never would have. She has the freedom to completely embrace her desires in all forms and act on them. Madam Satan is certainly having a better time than anyone else in Greendale – she’s one of the only characters who makes the idea of being a witch look like fun instead of some cosmic burden or duty. She’s over the top, to be sure, but Chilling Adventures doesn’t treat her like a joke, and it doesn’t automatically discount her idea of the world either.
In many ways Madam Satan already is what she’s encouraging these other girls to be: In full control of her own rage. She understands that anger is not just good but necessary, a type of righteous power that has been denied to women for far too long. (For her, specifically, probably the longest of any woman.) When she resurrects the Greendale Thirteen, she certainly does so with the intent of forcing Sabrina to sign the Book of the Beast, yes. But she also chooses these women specifically, to give them the chance to unleash the anger that was denied to them when they died.
Even as she uses Sabrina’s desire to save her friends against her, Mrs. Wardwell still offers the younger girl worthwhile advice. “All women are taught to fear power,” she says. “Own your power. Don’t accept it from the Dark Lord. Take it. Wield it.” This is a powerful message, and one that isn’t said enough in Greendale’s world, or in our own. Madam Satan knows – perhaps better than anyone – that women are supposed to serve, to subsume their own desires to those of men. Therefore it’s interesting that she’s still grooming Sabrina to resist, even as she maneuvers her toward a predetermined role in the witch world’s patriarchy. This tension exists throughout her character, and we can only assume that it will become more pronounced in Season 2, as we learn more about Madam Satan’s ultimate endgame.
Though she might be going by a different name now, Madam Satan still refuses to accept a secondary position, or to pretend to be less than she is in order to live in the confines of the witch world. Her ultimate goal, after all, is not merely to serve the Dark Lord, but to rule beside him – and in doing so, declare herself his equal. It’s certainly a powerful statement, and an attitude that the other witches might do well to emulate. (Though perhaps in a less potentially apocalyptic fashion.) After all, if one woman can defy the external hierarchy imposed on them, if she can give voice to her rage and claim her own power, why can’t they all?
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is currently available on Netflix.